The Playgoer: Infantilizing the Audience

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Infantilizing the Audience

Joe Fornabaio for The New York Times

Is it just me, or is there a fascinating tension in Campbell Robertson's front-page NYT story today, "Magical Moments, Tantrums or a $250 Lullaby." On the one hand, it goes about documenting the absurdity of wealthy parents buying up Broadway seats for their tots, who have no idea of what's going on. On the other hand, the article also seems to send the subliminal message: why don't you take your kids to a Broadway show this holiday season!

Case in point: see photo above. Remember, the article--headed by this photo--appeared on the front page of the Times. (And I don't mean front page of The Arts.) To some of us the image may scream absurd conspicuous consumption. But to the perceived typical NYT subscriber, does this not say, Awww?

And then: who do I call to get tickets?

Actually, what I think is going on here is Robertson wrote a very serious and informative piece taking us inside the demographics of the new megamusical in the Age of Disney, but that the Times saw its potential to be yet another charming consumer guide for the rich and famous. Among Robertson's more critical points:
The perception of Broadway as a destination for families with children has been growing for years, keeping pace with the rise of the tourist audience. According to the League of American Theaters and Producers, the proportion of Broadway theatergoers under the age of 18 rose from 4 percent in 1980 to a peak of 11.6 percent in the 2000-01 season. Last season 9.6 percent were under 18, with a third of those — or 384,000 theatergoers — under 12.
In other words, Disney hopes to succeed on Broadway with the same formula that blossomed for them in their 90s animated films. Namely--your ideal ticket buyers are not individuals, but families. Preferably big families. Why sell just a pair of tickets when you can sell 4 or 5.

Of course that means putting out product that mom and dad feel comfortable taking the kids to. And if you think that means PG-13, then you've just cheated yourself out of the potential millions you miss by excluding the todlers and teethers.

The article communicates very well--if subtly--that the only bankable forumla for success (i.e. profit) on Broadway today is A Show For The Whole Family. Contrast this to the plight of the more "adult" musicals I wrote about yesterday.

In his lede, for instance, Robertson conveys the boom for the industry along with the risk for the parent/consumer:
Four hundred and fifty bucks. That’s what it cost the Agnew family for a Saturday night performance of “The Lion King.” Whether that considerable chunk was spent for two hours and 45 minutes of delight or for one flustered and fuss-filled act followed by a hasty escape at intermission came down to one person: Harris Agnew, age 3.
Turns out they stayed. But if they didn't...They ain't gettin' that $450 back. It's Disney's.

The story reminded of some of the troubles Mary Poppins (a Disney-Cameron Mackintosh co-production) was having in previews, as reported on by Riedel. More worrisome to the Disney moneymen than the uncooperative special effects were the stated concerns that the show was a) too long, and b) too scary. One would have thought kids like to be scared...until you realize they're talking about kids kids. Like 3 years old. I like to imagine Sir Cameron and his director Sir Richard Eyre's reaction when Disney explained to them the show--like the circus--must be completely inoffensive to just to ladies and gentleman but children of all ages.

As promotional as I think the article is, the Poppins people won't like what they read as some of their worst fears are realized.

The verdict is still out on “Mary Poppins.” At a recent Sunday matinee there was a small exodus of theatergoers at intermission, each group led by a little child.

Escorting a party of five was Emma Iadanza, recently turned 6. This was Emma’s first early exit, said her father, Joe Iadanza (who, it probably should be said, was not paying; this one was on the grandparents). Emma had been to six or seven shows. “Mary Poppins,” Mr. Iadanza said, was too scary for her in some parts and boring in others. But you never know until you go.

By the way, the new Grinch musical clocks in at 1hr 15. Twelve shows a week. They're no dummies.

While there are certainly some unique problems the little ones pose (Robertson reports breast-feeding in the house, as well as the occasional availability of “lap tickets") there's also a lot of chuckles to be had when you realize that these toddlers are not necessarily much worse an audience than the regular crowd.
“You make sure that they’re fed and you make sure they’ve had their nap”...

“It was a lot of money for her to sit and sleep”...

...there are more bathroom trips and perhaps a general squirminess among members of the audience, but not much more so than among the grown-ups at the more ponderous Broadway shows....
Now if they just threw in "lap tickets" and breast feeding for the adults, that would be showbiz...


June said...

I was shocked at how many children (by which I mean kids that looked to be under the age of 12) were in the audience of the (evening) performance of Billy Elliot I attended in London.

Not only was it a late finish on a school night, but also the language is very blue. I'm the biggest potty mouth in Park Slope, but even I thought there was unnecessary cursing. I bet that gets cleaned up by the time the show comes to Broadway.

Anonymous said...

some of the most vivid memories from my childhood are of watching a theater piece or a musical. lucky kids who get to see these shows. (and operas. even weirder is sitting through 4 hours of Aida at the Met with a 7 and 11 year old in front of you for the whole show, sitting on booster seats of course.)

Anonymous said...

1) that photo doesn't say "awww" to me. it says "awww, you poor kids. i'll bet your parents are insufferable."

then, sure enough...


2) i'm not sure what the big deal about broadway being pitched to the under-12 set is. hasn't it been geared towards the mentally-under-12 set for awhile now?

Playgoer said...

Why thank you, London Escorts! Normally I summarily delete all spam comments. But the sheer brazenness of yours--especially in a post headed by a photo of two gussied up toddlers--well must be admired.

So your hookers hereby have my endorsement for any of my readers taking any London "theatre" excursions....